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A Journey With Grief

Tips on navigating loss, returning to work, and finding support (or being supportive) from someone who has loved and lost.

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Grief & Work

I knew it wasn’t going to be a ‘good day,’ it was the perfect storm of bronchitis, my husband traveling for the week leaving me alone to wrangle our two small children, and my mom’s birthday (she passed away nearly four years ago). 

But I was not prepared for what would happen next.

I had already resolved to have a proper sick day, watching my favorite movies and drinking tea. As the end credits were rolling for Fight Club, I scrolled through Facebook and was stopped in my tracks.

A dear old friend has passed away.

While I hadn’t been close with Jesse in years, he had always been one of those friends that when we spoke, it felt like not a moment had passed. He was one of the best humans I knew, I adored him. I was gutted and found myself in uncontrollable tears for 36 hours.

Even I returned to work, my grief stabbed at me: “How can you be editing a video like nothing is wrong and Jesse is not dead?”

While I’m not an expert on grief, and definitely not an expert on emotions, I have learned a few things in grief I wanted to share. Whether you’re walking this tragic path, or trying to help a friend who is, I hope these insights help.

Grief is Unique

You have probably heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But if you haven’t experienced grief what you may be surprised to learn is that the way you experience the grief is unique for each loss you experience, and it ranges from person to person. 

With that, there is no way you ‘should’ feel or reaction you ‘should’ have when faced with loss. 

We often have an image of what grief looks like: wearing black, quietly sobbing, maybe with a dramatic outburst of anger. But it doesn’t always show up that way.

Grief brings a range of emotions, sometimes strangely at once. You may also find the intensity of those emotions range from dull to overwhelming. Do your best to accept and feel through it. 

If you’re supporting someone through grief, acknowledge that the path will be different from the one you have walked, or even one you have supported them through in the past.

When To Get Back To Normal

This feels like an assault when you have experienced a loss. You have a gaping hole in your life – and no one seems to notice that the world changed.

In Option B, one of the aspects Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explore is pervasiveness. For example, when you experience a personal loss, there will be other areas of your life that are not directly impacted. At a macro level, your professional life will not be affected. 

While bereavement is something that many companies can improve upon, and most people don’t have the option of taking an indefinite amount of time off and even qualify some losses as ‘eligible’ and others as not, if you need to and can take time – do it.

However, returning to work may provide a sense of security or distraction which helps you navigate the journey.

Have an Escape Strategy

They say that grief comes in waves. The best analogy I’ve come across is the ball in a box. To sum it up as elegantly as possible, think of grief as a pain button in a box with a ball inside. At first, the ball that takes up most of the space, hitting the button rapidly. But over time, the ball shrinks, and it hits the button less and less.

Grief doesn’t have a set endpoint. You don’t move through the five stages and in the end, it is resolved – especially when you have lost someone close to you. 

When you return to work, know that there will be moments that trigger a grief aftershock, as I shared earlier.

Have a plan on how you can handle these scenarios. 

This includes details like how open you will be about your loss. You may choose to speak with few people about your loss, or not to share the details. You may choose to be an open book about it. This is your choice.

The other aspect of this plan is how you will handle emotions that arise. Stuffing them into a box may seem convenient, but isn’t a sustainable strategy. 

Will you be able to excuse yourself if you feel a sudden onset of sadness? Do you want to offer a quick explanation? Would you prefer that your boss or a friend share with your colleagues what you’re going through and guide them to how you want to proceed?

While you cannot control grief, having a plan when you return to work on how to manage it may help you feel more empowered to navigate it.

Do What You Need To Do (Without Judgement)

There are no bypasses, the only way through it is, well, through it. Tune into yourself to know what you need: this is real self-care.

Do you need to cry it out in the bathroom? Head into your favorite stall and let it rip.

Feel the need to scream? Go to your car and let it out.

Need to get away from banal conversations? Find a quiet corner or book a conference room for the quiet you need.

Would sharing a memory help? Turn to a colleague or call a friend or family member.

But the most important part here is not to judge yourself for what you need as you move through this process. 

I personally found myself beating myself up for listening to sad songs that reminded me of Jesse. But when I stopped myself to discover why I wanted to listen to those songs, again and again, I realized why: some of the songs reminded me of when he was teaching me how to drum (note that venture was not successful), or made me feel less isolated in his loss). 

Remember It’s Not Permanent

After Jesse passed, I was on day two of sitting on my couch crying, I thought to myself, “Will I ever feel not sad again?”

I knew the answer was yes, I would.

Not only because I have been through loss multiple times, but because nothing in this life is forever. It’s hard to look up from the hole in search of the light which you cannot see yet. But I promise it is there, and while your life will never be the same, you will experience joy again.

And eventually, when you think of the person you lost, the memory will bring more smiles than tears.

If you can’t find the light, send an SOS signal. Speak to a friend or family member, find a grief counselor or support group, or if you are having thoughts of harming yourself contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

What Not to Say

We know there are many things people say in an effort to provide comfort that is not comforting: they’re in a better place, it was God’s plan, at least they are no longer suffer, stay strong, and the like. At best these commonly used sayings are not helpful, at worst they are triggering and harmful. 

What I didn’t expect when I experienced loss was that people would say the strangest things. 

At the strangest times. 

In the strangest ways.

After delivering my mother’s eulogy while seven months pregnant, a mourner came up to me afterward and stated, “You must be having a boy. You’re very big.” 

The most common question I received after Jesse’s death was questioned about how he died, even from people who didn’t know him. If you have experienced a sudden and/or traumatic loss, this is incredibly triggering. Know that you are entitled to say “I don’t want to speak about it,” unless of course, you do.

In my opinion, it can be overwhelming to find the right words to properly convey your condolence. Because here are no right words to communicate the gravity of the loss. Unfortunately, in the absence of the right words, random stuff comes out.

While it may be the last thing you want to be, do your best to be compassionate and see through the unfortunate statements and into the point: that person cares and is doing their best to support you. 

Legacy

Facing our own mortality is never comfortable. Jesse’s death was another brutal reminder to me how short this life is, and what legacy I want to leave on it. 

Take advantage of every day that you have in this lifetime. Grief provides us a selfish opportunity to be introspective about the life we want to live. 

What in your life do you want to do more of? Do more of those things. What makes you unhappily wish away days?  Get rid of those things, whether it’s a job, a partner or a bad habit. 

This is morbid, but since my mom passed, I think about who I want to be remembered by and how they will remember me and I focus on being that person and living that life. 

That is what grief has taught me.

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